Illuminated, page 3
He shot her a startled glance. “Are you sure? I could find something else in town.”
“No, it’s all right. We survivors should stick together, right?” He still looked uncertain, so she added, smiling so he’d know it was a joke, “As long as you’re not a serial killer or something.”
A slow grin spread over his face. “No, I’m not a serial killer.”
About all she could do was hope he was telling her the truth.
Kamal stretched out on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, now faintly illuminated by the glow from the candle on his bedside table. Sarah had bidden him a good night and retired to her own suite, concealed behind a set of glass doors with heavy drapes that hid everything within. The exchange had been rather awkward, as though she understood all too well how odd it was for her to invite a stranger to sleep under her roof, even while acknowledging that it was probably better for them to remain together.
Well, it was a very large roof. And although the suite he now occupied was on the ground floor, the same as hers, it was at the opposite end of the corridor, with windows that overlooked the hotel’s extensive grounds. His djinn-sharp eyes could make out the shape of a gazebo, and an empty swimming pool beyond that; scaffolding around the pool suggested it had been undergoing construction at the time the Heat swept through the world. Just as well; without electricity, Sarah would have had a difficult time draining it, a task that would have had to be done before the winter freeze set in.
All in all, he was quite pleased with how things had worked out so far. She had seemed wary at first, but more curious than anything else. Kamal could sense how relieved she had been to speak to another human being…or at least, someone she thought was a human being.
Good thing that he had studied these mortals, had done his best to learn how to mimic their speech patterns and idioms. He did not think Sarah had noticed anything out of the ordinary about his person; he’d made sure to wear clothing that wouldn’t attract notice, jeans and a T-shirt and hoodie, and a canvas jacket over that. Hiking boots, and a rucksack he’d found in an outdoor store in Las Cruces. Of course he hadn’t gone anywhere near Roswell; that entire story was pure fiction. He’d needed something plausible to tell her, something that made him sound like a survivor from close enough by, if not a true neighbor. Just enough that she wouldn’t find anything too strange, too alien about him.
Clearly she hadn’t, or he wouldn’t be lying here on this comfortable bed. It would have been even more pleasant if he could have shared it with her, but that, he knew, was expecting far too much too soon. He’d noted the obvious signs of attraction in her — quick, sidelong glances, a casual moistening of her lips, the way she smoothed her hair when she thought he wasn’t looking — so he knew that their joining wasn’t an impossibility. Far from it. All things in their own time, however.
Time…well, he’d have to see how much time all this would actually require. Sarah’s comment about the water might have discomfited a mortal, but since Kamal was a water elemental, such minor inconveniences were no trouble for him. He’d thanked her for the pitcher of water she’d given him, saying there should be enough to have a glass to drink with some left over for washing-up, but he had no intention of using it for that purpose. All he had to do was go into the bathroom and lay a hand on the faucet, and the water would come gushing out. It wasn’t even as though he had to conjure the water itself, for it lay in its holding tank beneath the hotel, simply waiting to be used.
A small talent, but still one he would have to conceal from Sarah. For now, anyway.
He’d enjoyed speaking with her, though, listening to the sound of her voice, low but soft, pleasant enough that he guessed he would not easily tire of it. And the way the firelight had glimmered in her big eyes, almost green in its golden glow, even though he knew her eyes were really blue. So lovely, even in the plain long-sleeved T-shirt she wore and her faded jeans.
Just the memory of her long, slim legs in those jeans, and the way her T-shirt had clung to her curves, was enough to make his blood run a little hotter. He told his body it would have to wait a while longer. She was friendly, but skittish nonetheless for all that. If he pushed himself on her too soon, he could ruin everything.
In the meantime, it was best to will himself to sleep, and know he would be able to spend more time with her tomorrow.
Although she was physically tired — just as she was nearly every day, after managing all the minutiae of a life without electricity or running water — Sarah couldn’t quite summon the calm she needed to fall asleep. It didn’t help that the room was fairly cold, either; the bed was piled with extra blankets, but they could only do so much. The same with the fireplace in the sitting area of the suite. Thank God it was actually functional, but the small firebox didn’t give off as much heat as she would have liked. Enough to take the edge off, and that was about it. The room came equipped with a portable heater to supplement the fireplace, but without electricity, the heater’s only use was as an oversized doorstop. More than once, Sarah had wondered whether she should move her base of operations to someplace a little more convenient. Just down the street were several houses she’d always admired, new and large and well-maintained, built chalet-style into the side of the hill.
And yet she’d stayed, stubbornly clinging to this spot, even though she knew her father was long gone, that he wouldn’t come walking back up the hill one day, full of stories about everything he’d survived since the world-changing fever had run its way through the population. Deep down, she’d understood that no one was going to find her here.
Except, improbably, someone had. And not just any “someone,” but a guy probably only a few years older than she, darkly good-looking, friendly. Talk about the universe deciding that maybe it had been just a little too harsh after all.
Which of course it had. You couldn’t exactly compare the thrill of having an unexpected companion — no matter how attractive — show up on your doorstep to the unspeakable tragedy of all those countless millions lost.
No, probably billions. She’d been so isolated here that she still didn’t have a clear idea of the enormity of this disaster, but two people alive in a place even as lightly populated as New Mexico was a pretty clear indicator that this disease had a mortality rate that made Ebola look like the chicken pox.
Where had it even come from? She’d wondered about that a good bit, thinking maybe the disease was something that had escaped from a lab. Something right out of a science fiction novel, or a horror movie. No zombies here, though. Just dust, and emptiness.
She rolled over. On the nightstand was a small vanilla-scented votive candle in a glass holder; she couldn’t bear to be alone in utter darkness these days, and always had to have a candle burning once the sun went down. At some point, she supposed, she’d run out of candles, although that day was a good ways off. Cloudcroft was small, but it had its own candle store, and there had also been some candles in the Family Dollar. She was working her way through those ones first, saving the good candles for later on, when she’d need them to combat the dark, dull days of winter and early spring.
If she stayed here. Maybe it would be better for her and Cameron to take the sturdiest vehicle they could find here in town, siphon as much gas they could carry — she’d discovered a bunch of gas cans in the maintenance shed, so transporting fuel wouldn’t be a problem — and then head out, first for Las Cruces, and then up to Albuquerque. Surely there must still be people in Albuquerque, even if she hadn’t been able to contact them on the radio. She refused to believe that the entire state was empty except for her and Cameron. There had to be survivors.
Of course, all these plans were predicated on the assumption that the two of them would continue to get along, would decide to work together. For all she knew, a day or two in her presence would be enough to induce boredom, and Cam would want to move on. God knows it wouldn’t be the first time.
But…what if she was the selfish jerk? What if she’d clung to her responsibility to her father because she didn’t want to acknowledge that she was kind of scared shitless to try to make something of herself in the wide world beyond Cloudcroft?
Possibly. Not that it mattered now.
Anyway, she was getting ahead of herself. She needed to wait and see how things worked out with Cameron. God knows he was easy on the eyes, but what if he turned out to be less than ideal? Maybe he would be lazy, and expect her to wait on him hand and foot. All right, that didn’t sound like someone who’d just walked sixty miles on mountain roads to get here, but you just never knew for sure, did you? Or maybe he was a slob, or someone who wanted to spend all day talking about baseball scores.
Or maybe he’d try to get physical. There was a real conundrum, because she had to admit to herself that she didn’t think she’d mind too much if he did. She knew basically nothing about him, but she did know she reacted to him on a visceral level, was drawn to those smoldering dark eyes, that lean, muscular build. All right, she couldn’t really say his eyes smoldered, exactly, but they were so very dark and deep, fringed with amazing lashes. And that silky dark hair. If asked, she probably would have said she really wasn’t into guys with long hair, that it seemed kind of feminine to her, but there was absolutely nothing feminine about Cameron.
Right then, she wasn’t sure which would be worse — if he got physical before she wanted him to, or if he never did.
What if he was gay? He didn’t seem gay to her, but she’d be the first to admit that her gaydar wasn’t exactly well calibrated. That would be a fine irony, though…to have the handsomest guy to survive the apocalypse right here in her lap, so to speak, and he wouldn’t care at all about her lap because he’d really been hoping the survivor he found would turn out to be Sean, not Sarah.
All right, now would be a really good time to stop torturing yourself, she thought, and rolled over again, this time onto her back.
But she still couldn’t quite get her mind to shut up. It was as though Cameron’s presence had flicked over a switch, made her thoughts race, chasing one after the other. His story sounded plausible enough, and yet….
More than two months had passed since the world changed. Yes, he’d told her how he’d roamed the streets of Roswell and the farms and ranches outside the city, looking for any survivors, but would that kind of endeavor really take two whole months? She had to admit she wasn’t as familiar with Roswell as she would have liked — she’d gone there off and on, one time with a bunch of friends to giggle at the UFO Museum and the kitschy shops that catered to the paranormal crowd, another time just passing through on her way to Carlsbad Caverns — but she didn’t have a good grasp on how big the town really was, how many residential streets Cameron might have had to traverse. Just making a similar inspection of Cloudcroft had taken her a few days, and the tiny hamlet had fewer than a thousand permanent residents.
Anyway, what reason would he have to lie? Maybe he’d spent a few weeks just trying to get a handle on what had happened, steeling himself to face a changed reality. If that was the case, then he was probably in a better place than she. Sarah knew she should have left Cloudcroft weeks or even months ago, tried to find survivors in the wide world. But she hadn’t, staying here out of fear, or vain hope, or maybe good old plain inertia.
Well, now she didn’t have to go looking. She had someone here with her now, and things would never be the same.
The hotel felt completely empty, silent, dead. And yet Kamal knew better, because he sensed the faint tingle at the back of his neck that told him a human was nearby. Not in the room down the hall — a quick glance let him know the door stood open, revealing a sort of sitting area with a desk and an armchair. A fire burned low in a hearth that was nearly out of his field of vision.
So Sarah had been there recently. He closed the door to his borrowed hotel room behind him and made his way out to the lobby. The fireplace here was not entirely cold, either; the coals from last night’s fire smoldered quietly, ready to be brought to life once again. A pile of logs sat on the floor next to the hearth, so he added several to the coals, using a pair of enormous tongs to arrange them with care, so they might get the oxygen they needed to burn efficiently.
A rustle off to one side made him look up. Sarah stood there, dressed in jeans and a sweater. In each hand, she held a white-glazed mug. Steam curled up from those mugs, along with the rich smell of fresh-brewed coffee.
“I thought you might like some,” she said, extending one of the mugs toward him.
“Thank you,” he replied, and moved closer so he might take the coffee from her. On purpose, he had his fingers brush against hers, just to see how she would react. Color flamed in the fair skin of her cheeks, but she didn’t flinch or try to move away from him.
“I hope you don’t mind that I tended the fire,” he went on, hoping his casual tone would defuse some of the tension in the room. A welcome kind of tension, to be sure, but he didn’t want to put her too much on edge. He needed her to become relaxed around him, to become used to the reality of his presence.
“No, I don’t mind. I meant to get to it, but then I thought I’d better get the coffee going.”
“Yes, I remember you saying you had propane here.”
“For now.” A lift of the shoulders, an offhand gesture that didn’t fool him for a second. “I try to be careful with it. Luckily, the tanks were filled just a day or so before…well, before. So I don’t think too much of it got used up. It’s hard to tell for sure, though.”
“I can check,” he offered, and her well-arched brows lifted in surprise.
“You can? I suppose I should know how to do it, but my father always took care of that sort of thing at the house — ”
“Yes. I used to do some work on a ranch outside Roswell. They showed me how. I’ll just need some hot water, though.”
She smiled then, clearly relieved to have someone around to help with such mundane issues. “That I have, since I just boiled water for coffee. Let me go get the kettle.”
“Sure.” He got the impression that she wanted him to remain where he was, so he stayed standing in front of the fireplace, sipping at the hot coffee, as she disappeared through the bar and on into the hotel dining room. The kitchen must be located someplace beyond that.
The coffee was good, strong and rich. He wondered if she was using the stores left behind here at the Lodge, or whether this was something she’d gotten in town. Not that it mattered one way or another.
As for the trick with the propane — unlike many of his kind, who might deign to sample human cuisine, or listen to the music created by mortals, or visit one of their art galleries, but otherwise showed little interest in human affairs — Kamal had studied many facets of human life, especially the kind of life led by the people in this part of the country, the place that had once been New Mexico. He had known from early on who he wanted to be his Chosen, and so he had determined to immerse himself in the world she knew. Her future might be utterly changed from what she had once expected, and yet he hoped he could offer her a little familiarity.
Sarah returned, a stainless-steel kettle in one hand. “The tanks are out here.”
He followed her through a set of French doors into the gardens. Now all the grass was yellow, faded into winter’s dormancy. Frost glittered on that grass, and he saw Sarah shiver. The cold couldn’t affect him as it did her, but he made a show of blowing on his hands as he walked
They went past the gazebo and the now perpetually under construction swimming pool. Kamal saw that Sarah was headed toward a long, low building half hidden behind a rise. “The maintenance shed,” she explained, even though the structure seemed a good deal larger than the average shed.
Behind that building were two large white tanks. “Which one?” he asked.
“The one closer to us. It’s the primary tank. I think it’s supposed to get switched over when it’s empty, but I honestly don’t know if that’s something that happens automatically, or whether we have to come out and do something about it.”
Her expression was troubled, although Kamal couldn’t be sure whether that concern was based on her lack of knowledge about the process, or merely worry that they might be very close to using up the first tank. “Well, let’s see if it’s anything we need to worry about in the near future,” he told her. “After that, we’ll worry about how we’re supposed to switch the tanks.” Her face brightened a little, and he went on, “Pour the hot water down the side of the tank. After that, I’ll feel the metal. It’ll be warmer in the part that’s empty. The spot where it changes will tell us how much is left.”
“Wow,” she said, looking impressed. “It’s really that simple?”
“Usually. Give it a try.”
She lifted the kettle and poured a liberal amount of water onto the tank. The liquid steamed in the cold air, and Kamal hoped the ambient temperature, which appeared to be hovering a few degrees above freezing, wouldn’t alter the results too much. He felt the metal, slowly sliding his hand down the surface of the tank.
by Christine Pope / Romance / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes